The Monster in the Side Yard

Kudzu, like nature, will never be tamed.

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“October is the year come to harvest,” wrote nature columnist Hal Borland of The New York Times, “in the barn, in the mow, in the root cellar, the jam closet, the cold pantry.” Below the Mason Dixon Line, October is also “the year come to harvest” in the yard or alley, when kudzu loses its leaves. Kudzu, which has been called the Plant That Ate the South, can be deceptively beautiful.“This vine is kind of pretty,” I said to my wife a few summers ago while we worked in the side yard. “It’s good that you think so,” she said, “because it’s kudzu.”

We’ve been hacking away at the ubiquitous vine ever since, but now that it appears to be in retreat, I breathe easier. I celebrate by switching from summer’s gin-and-tonic to autumn’s bourbon, enjoyed by a still-unused fireplace instead of on the front porch. Cooler weather is now upon us, and the sweat-drenched afternoons and buggy Southern evenings spent chopping kudzu already seem far behind. Traffic on Virginia’s Skyline Drive, where carloads gape at the gold and crimson display of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is thinning out. Thanksgiving, Christmas and the raw days of the New Year are coming. But while our garden disappears and our shade trees are stripped bare by winter’s blasts, Pueraria montana continues to work its sinister will. Most forms of life hibernate to one degree or another, but the devious “cuss-you” plant––with leaves or without––never really sleeps. It just plays dead, as it plots next year’s assault.

That’s why my celebration of its seasonal demise is an exercise in self-deception. The fastest-climbing vine known to man, kudzu can grow a foot a day, enveloping trees, barns and fields faster than we can find ways to arrest it. Though most prevalent in the Deep South, I have seen kudzu engulf woodlands along the Potomac River outside Washington, DC. Experts say it covers seven million acres, as far north as Long Island. What kudzu does beneath the topsoil, hidden from view, is the stuff of low-budget Halloween movies. Twenty-year-old kudzu plants can “produce huge, underground, potato-like roots that can extend to depths of three to nine feet and weigh as much as 300 pounds,” Clemson University horticulturists report.

Although some Southern eccentrics grow fond of it, most Americans have yet to make friends with kudzu. That is perhaps unfortunate, because kudzu can be useful. For centuries the residents of its native East Asia have used it to make tea and health tonics. About all we can boast of comes from one lone North Carolina woman who makes kudzu-blossom jelly and uses crumbled kudzu leaves instead of broccoli in her casseroles. Her efforts to interest others in french-fried kudzu leaves have met with little success. Goats evidently like it raw, but you know goats. Perhaps some things are not supposed to be domesticated. There are aspects of Nature that don’t readily bend to our will and, like cats, will never be eager to please. Some wild things are and will always be defiant. Kudzu may exist to remind us of this fact, which is well worth mulling over in the long nights to come, as we warm our feet in front of our fires, longing for spring and pondering new and fiendish schemes for its ultimate eradication.